Derek Royden / Nation of Change & IRIN News – 2017-10-31 00:41:34
Destroying Raqqa in Order to Save It
The devastation of Raqqa was not covered in the English
language press with the same vigor as the earlier battle for Aleppo
Derek Royden / Nation of Change
“Why do they demolish and burn the houses?
Why do they burn the trees?
Are these trees ISIS supporters?
(October 29, 2017) — It may be a bit premature, but it does seem like the brutal fight against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is nearing its end. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by American and allied air-forces, took ISIL’s (Islamic State in the Levant) ‘capital’, the Syrian city of Raqqa, after a four-month siege that left the city in ruins.
Simultaneously, to the east, the Syrian Arab Army and its allies are on the offensive against the group’s remaining holdouts in the province of Deir Ezzor.
Although many analysts warn that ISIL has now become a brand that has spread to Africa and south Asia, the leaders of the core group, pejoratively called Daesh in Arabic, will not for the time being be able to control much, if any, territory in the Levant, a promise contained in their very name. The physical ‘caliphate’ was one of the main things that differentiated it from other Salafist groups like the original Al Qaeda.
As reported by the UK Guardian earlier this month, what’s left of the leadership of the group, possibly including its ‘Caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has retreated to three main towns, Mayedin and Sukhna on the Syrian side of the border and Bukmal on the Iraqi side.
As an unnamed regional official explained to the paper of the Euphrates valley, where these towns are located, “The people there are traditionally conservative and many are allied to the ISIS cause. They will be hard to oust.”
The first problem of reconstruction in Raqqa, as in other cities that fell to ISIL and other salafist groups, will be removing the vast amounts of ordinance, including unexploded coalition bombs and artillery shells. As elsewhere, Islamic State fighters also mined and booby-trapped much of the city, including private residences, making it too dangerous for Raqqa’s displaced residents to return to assess the damage to their homes and places of business.
As Ibrahim al-Hassan, an engineer who was preparing to work with the Raqqa Civilian Council (RCC) on the reconstruction of the city told AFP shortly after the battle had ended, “This is a huge challenge — we can’t do anything else before getting rid of the mines.”
Thus, the almost 300,000 people who once called Raqqa home won’t be able to return with winter fast approaching; the lucky ones will remain abroad but the majority will live rough in camps like Ain Issa, north of the city.
“The camps are overcrowded and we need to be thinking about that now,” a spokesperson for the aid group Mercy Corps related to IRIN News, “The time frame that we’re really looking at is weather. At this particular moment, everybody is keeping an eye on the approaching winter, and nobody wants to spend this winter under a tent.”
While the United States is providing some immediate aid, the current administration in Washington has made it clear that it isn’t interested in ‘nation building’ over the long term. The massive amounts of money that will be needed to rebuild so many cities in Iraq and Syria will probably lead most of the country’s coalition partners to take a similar position, if more quietly. This leaves the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), the main ground force that took the city, facing a new set of problems going forward.
Facing outright hostility from Turkey, which hosts the Raqqa Provincial Council (RPC), another group that claims it should govern the area, and a strained relationship with the leadership of Iraqi Kurdistan (which has problems of its own), the SDF will probably need to look to Damascus (and its partners Iran and Russia) for help with reconstruction or to wealthy Gulf monarchies Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who no less a figure than Hillary Clinton said were funding the very group they just displaced in an email published by Wikileaks last year.
Unfortunately for the city, there is no guarantee that either of these opposed groupings will be forthcoming with the aid that will be needed for rebuilding.
This is mainly because the SDF is essentially window dressing for the PYD (Democratic Union Party), a Kurdish party that has said that it won’t forcibly annex the city and its namesake province to its self-declared Rojava territories, which are engaged in a unique experiment based on feminist principles and direct democracy.
Instead, they have said that the province and city should form part of a new decentralized and federal Syria. This has the potential to ratchet up tensions with almost every other player in a country full of heavily armed great and regional powers and their proxies.
Like most of the cities leveled in the fight against ISIL, Raqqa was majority Arab and, although the SDF is nominally a multi-ethnic coalition with Arab and Assyrian Christian members, the majority of its fighters are drawn from the PYD’s military wings: the YPG and its all female force, the YPJ. This may make some former Arab residents of the city wary of returning, especially if stories of looting and ethnic cleansing previously leveled at these militias are true.
Speaking to the website, Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered, a man named Abd from a village that once had around 15,000 residents called Big Sweidiyeh, taken earlier by the SDF, lamented the looting and dispossession that took place in the aftermath of this victory, including the burning of olive trees that had provided for the community for generations:
“Why do they demolish and burn the houses? Why do they burn the trees? Are these trees ISIS supporters? Or this is only a systematic policy to take vengeance from Arabs? It is not Sweidiyeh issue, it is the issue of all the villages in Taqba countryside. What if this was made by ISIS? The whole world will be talking about it.”
It didn’t help that Kurdish fighters held a celebration in Raqqa almost immediately after taking the city, waving banners featuring the face of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Turkish PKK, the PYD’s sister organization and inspiration, who is in jail in that country for treason, provoking a new round of saber-rattling from Ankara.
It also brought a rare rebuke from the U.S. by way of its embassy in Turkey, who released a statement that read in part, “The PKK is listed among foreign terror organizations. Ocalan has been jailed in Turkey for his actions related to the PKK. He is not a person to be respected.”
While the celebration itself was understandable after the fierce fighting that led to the loss of many of their comrades in arms, it was provocative to Turkey and other countries with large Kurdish minorities, including Iran. It also seemed a little early as one looked at the ruins of a city that has a long and distinguished history beginning with its association with the ancient Babylonian city of Tuttul.
Early on in this conflict by proxy, this writer and some others with much greater reach, looked with favor on the PYD and its ideological roots in the thinking of one of the U.S.’ most underrated political philosophers, the late Murray Bookchin, whose interest in feminism, deep ecology and direct democracy is still ahead of its time.
The roots of the PYD are in Kurdish nationalism and a cult of personality built around Ocalan, who converted from Marxism to Bookchin’s ideas while in prison. The question remains whether the idealistic experiment in Rojava can survive such a brutal conflict, which by its very nature has divided people into smaller and smaller groups, not to mention the power politics of regional and world powers on the ground.
On the other hand, the PYD do have the potential to be a game changer in the Middle East and the world if they are able to live up to their ideals.
As Kimmy Taylor, a young woman from the UK who participated alongside the YPJ in the siege of Raqqa told Sky News during the celebration that followed city’s fall:
“If women understand how to protect themselves . . . how to defend themselves physically and also mentally, this is how we gain freedom.
“It’s not just for here it’s for all over the world. We need to learn why we are protecting ourselves, what are we protectingâ€¦ Our morals as women, our ethics as women, our history and our culture as women. This is what we need to protect and defend, and from this we can build something new, where we can build an equal society.”
The devastation of Raqqa was not covered in the English language press with the same vigor as the earlier battle for Aleppo. The Russian and Syrian assault there was no more acceptable to people of principle than the leveling of the IS ‘capital’ by the United States and its allies. Far too many in the West, including on the left, are willing to accept that the brutality of those they support comes is well-intentioned while accusing those they oppose engaged in similar behavior of war crimes. After more than 5 years, it should be clear that no group fighting in Syria (or Iraq) is without the blood of innocents on its hands.
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Winter Is Coming: Who Will Rebuild Raqqa?
Exploring the future of Raqqa provides clues
to the endgame of Syria’s long and complex war
STOCKHOLM (October 23, 2017) — After years of fighting, the so-called Islamic State has finally been driven out of Raqqa, its main stronghold in Syria. This is a major victory for those fighting the group, but Raqqa is now a ghost town, strewn with rubble and unexploded bombs. As winter approaches, the city’s new rulers are in a race against time to make it habitable once again.
Central Raqqa’s Naeem roundabout has become emblematic of IS rule: The group’s gory propaganda films delighted in showing black banners fluttering over crucified bodies and severed heads at the traffic circle.
That’s all over now. Today, the roundabout is draped in the yellow flags of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-Arab coalition fighting to destroy IS, aided by the United States and dozens of other countries.
For the SDF and its allies, taking Raqqa was a harbinger of victory and cause for great celebration. But in the process of eliminating IS, Naeem roundabout and everything around it was reduced to rubble.
“One hundred and thirty-five days of clashes created huge destruction in the city,” SDF media official Perwar Mohammed Ali told IRIN by phone from Ain Issa, north of Raqqa, describing a wasteland of collapsing buildings strewn with land mines and unexploded bombs.
“As of now, we cannot tell civilians to come back to Raqqa, because it’s dangerous.”
A City without People
Since the SDF offensive began in June, the US-led coalition has reportedly dropped some 20,000 munitions on Raqqa. According to the monitoring group Airwars, in August alone the city was pummelled with 10 times more bombs than all of Afghanistan over the same period.
Airwars counts US bombing as responsible for most of the 1,800 civilian deaths it recorded during the Raqqa offensive, although the coalition disputes these numbers.
Echoing SDF estimates, a UN official told IRIN that at least four-fifths of Raqqa city is now uninhabitable, partly because of material destruction, but also due to unexploded ordnance and a lack of electricity and water.
The UN says more than 312,000 people have fled Raqqa province as a whole, and many of the city’s former inhabitants are now stuck in camps in the barren, SDF-controlled countryside north of the city. Conditions there are “miserable”, according to Save the Children, which warns that many of the displaced could be trapped in makeshift camps for “months or years to come”.
That’s why aid workers insist there’s no time to lose in creating the conditions for a safe return to Raqqa.
“The camps are overcrowded and we need to be thinking about that now,” Christy Delafield, spokeswoman for Mercy Corps — an aid group that was shut down by the government in Turkey but still has some operations on the ground in Syria — told IRIN. “The timeframe that we’re really looking at is weather. At this particular moment, everybody is keeping an eye on the approaching winter, and nobody wants to spend this winter under a tent.”
In the meantime, the UN is already distributing “winterization kits” across Syria — these include insulation, floor mats, waterproofing, and a heater for tents.
Bombs Under the Rubble
The security situation in Raqqa is extremely precarious. SDF sources told IRIN that IS fighters are still thought to be hiding inside the city, claiming to have caught one as recently as Friday.
Apart from flushing out the last few IS snipers, the SDF’s to-do list is topped by the need to clear out landmines and unexploded US bombs — or at least figure out where they are. Landmines have already killed members of least nine families that have tried to return to Raqqa, coalition sources say.
“IS had years of time to prepare and place booby traps in buildings,” Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a Pentagon spokesman, told IRIN.
Delafield said there are “quite a few unknown dangers in terms of unexploded ordinance and other kinds of explosive devices, such as booby-trapping,” in Raqqa. “People need to be given accurate information about what clearance has been done in their neighbourhoods and their homes, to ensure that people are not moving into harm’s way when they are trying to return,” she added.
And once the tough job of demining has been completed, there’ll be the not-so-small matters of governing and rebuilding to worry about.
The Raqqa Civil Council
The SDF has said it will hand power over to the Raqqa Civil Council, a group set up in Ain Issa last April. Like most SDF-backed organs, and in stark contrast to the values enforced by IS, the council has a gender-balanced double presidency: Leadership is shared by Leila Mustafa, a Kurdish woman from the border town of Tel Abyad, and her male Arab counterpart Mahmoud al-Borsan, a former member of the Syrian parliament and a leader of the Walda tribe, which is influential in Raqqa.
Co-opting tribal figures to win Arab support is a tried and true tactic of the SDF, and it has worked fairly well elsewhere in northeastern Syria.
The Raqqa Civil Council seems to be an attempt to draw on those experiences: Mustafa even served in a similar council set up to govern her hometown Tel Abyad, which is also majority Arab, when that city was taken from IS in 2015.
But Kheder Khaddour, a Syrian scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, warns that Raqqa — a city at least 10 times larger than Tel Abyad — is a very different social landscape than the SDF has dealt with in the past.
“Raqqa is a city of [around] 200,000, where you have educated middle classes and traders who operate in autonomy from their tribal belongings. A legitimate local governance body cannot function without involving this largely displaced educated middle class,” Khaddour told IRIN by email.
According to Khaddour, the Kurdish factions that dominate the SDF have faced trouble before in co-opting educated urban elites, even in cities like Qamishli, which has been under their control for more than five years.
It is an open secret that these Kurdish groups are the real power behind the Raqqa Civil Council and the SDF, and that they are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a long insurgency against the government in Turkey.
Huge portraits of PKK founder Abdullah Ã–calan were on display in the Naeem roundabout as a group of female Kurdish fighters staged the first round of victory celebrations, and their commanders dedicated the victory to him.
It drove home the point: For all the councils and front groups created to obscure it, there’s no doubting that Raqqa, like much of northern Syria, is now under de facto PKK control.
The Politics of Reconstruction
Though the PKK’s Syrian affiliates are known to run a tight ship — they have proven themselves far more adept at administering territory than most of Syria’s armed groups — they lack the resources and trained cadre necessary for launching a major rebuilding programme on their own. The SDF will have to depend on foreign allies to fund the reconstruction of Raqqa, and that’s where things start to get complicated.
In the best of worlds, reconstruction supplies would already be flooding in across the Turkish border, paid for by an international community eager to get the Raqqa Civil Council up and running and demine residential neighbourhoods in time for winter.
Humanitarian aid does cross Syria’s northern border regularly — but the SDF’s PKK connection means Turkey may block anything headed for Raqqa.
Ankara views the group as a major threat to its national authority, and seems more likely to attack Kurdish-ruled regions than help them rebuild and recover.
Neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan is not necessarily a reliable conduit for support to Raqqa, either. The president of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, Masoud Barzani, is a fierce rival of the PKK and, most of the time, a close ally of Turkey.
Plus, Barzani’s decision to stage an independence referendum on 25 September prompted both Turkey and Iran to put his autonomous area under blockade, while the Iraqi central government moved to recapture swathes of disputed, Kurdish-controlled land, including border regions that might otherwise have been used by the SDF to supply reconstruction efforts in Syria.
So what about the Americans? The US government has been a reliable ally of the Syrian Kurds on the battlefield, and it has already given some aid that can be used in the post-conflict phase.
“During the clashes, the coalition provided the SDF with mine sweepers and some machines to clear the mines, but the amount of destruction is huge and we need much more,” insisted the SDF’s Perwar Mohammed Ali.
Yet Washington has repeatedly signalled that there are limits to how much non-military assistance it will provide, and that it won’t engage in long-term nation-building. “We’re not here forever to fix everything. We have no money or desire to spend 20 years here demining the homes,” a US State Department official told AFP last week.
The US State Department did not respond to IRIN’s request for comment by publication.
The Americans are also constrained by their need to balance investments in the SDF against a much older relationship with NATO member Turkey. Ankara is already outraged by US military support for the SDF, and any hint of American backing for Kurdish civil governance and state-building efforts in northern Syria would strain ties further.
The issue is divisive and controversial inside the US government, and Thursday’s Ã–calan shindig in Naeem roundabout did nothing to help the SDF’s allies in Washington.
“There is a very active debate right now within the US government about whether the SDF, or the Kurdish components within it, can actually pull off sustainable post-IS governance,” said Nicholas Heras, a Washington-based fellow at the Center for a New American Security who is regularly in touch with US policymakers on Syria.
He told IRIN the Naeem roundabout episode “came unexpectedly and at the wrong time”, embarrassing key Pentagon officials who have advocated for continued US support to the SDF.
A Role for Riyadh?
But there may be ways to bypass the political blockages in Washington: The US-led coalition has reportedly tried to get Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to step in and pay for Raqqa’s reconstruction.
On Tuesday, Saudi Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer al-Sabhan visited the Raqqa Civil Council in Ain Issa alongside the US special envoy to the anti-IS coalition Brett McGurk. According to both council officials and the Dutch journalist Wladimir Van Wilgenburg, who was on site in Ain Issa, the meetings dealt with reconstruction funding. But al-Sabhan’s visit seems to have been a first contact, and no clear indication of Saudi support has yet materialised.
“McGurk came and some Saudi Arabian officials came, but still we have seen nothing,” said the SDF’s Perwar Mohammed Ali. “We expect in the coming days they will help us, but so far it is only promises.”
While getting the Gulf Arabs to fund reconstruction efforts sounds like a jackpot for the SDF, it would come with its own set of risks and strings attached.
The conservative Sunni Arab regimes in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have traditionally taken a dim view of Syrian Kurdish aspirations, and they seem to view the PKK’s feminist and socialist guerrillas with particular distaste. Nevertheless, their interests are temporarily aligned, as it just so happens that the PKK’s arch-enemy Turkey has lined up behind the Gulf states’ local rival Qatar, and the Syrian regime is tightly allied with their regional foe, Iran.
Any Gulf money to northern Syria would have to hinge on the SDF’s continued ability to serve as a thorn in the side of Turks and Iranians, and it could dry up if the Saudis and Emiratis were to reconcile with either the Qataris or the Turks, or if the Gulf royals were to conclude that the SDF was too cosy with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus.
Hurdles on the Road to Damascus
This is a bit of a problem for the SDF, which seems to view cooperation with al-Assad as a necessary evil to ensure the survival of their project in northern Syria.
As the Syrian regime drives east, gobbling up desert cities in the dying days of the IS “caliphate”, it has mostly avoided clashes with the SDF. Russia and the United States are of course working hard to prevent friction between their respective allies, but that could change now that Syria is visibly moving toward some form of endgame, with al-Assad still in uncontested control of Damascus.
With Turkey an implacable enemy, and northern Iraq an unreliable ally at best and another enemy at worst (but mostly just a weird mess), and the United States unwilling to put both feet down and nation-build, Damascus represents the Syrian Kurds’ only window on the world.
Al-Assad holds the keys to the rest of Syria’s borders, airports, roads, and infrastructure, to accessing the state bureaucracy and the Syrian economy, to public sector services and salaries, and to a significant portion of UN aid.
The SDF leaders might not like it, but they know it, and they seem to have decided that it would be better to lay out their case while they still have the US Air Force at their back.
“We will negotiate in the future with the Syrian regime,” said the SDF spokesman, Perwar Mohammed Ali. “If they attack us, of course we have a right of self-defence, but we are ready for talks and negotiations with everybody.”
In the coming days, Damascus-allied Moscow will organise a round of talks between the Kurds and the al-Assad government at the Russian-run Hmeymim Air Base in western Syria.
“Let’s see what the other parties to the conflict say,” said Perwar Mohammed Ali. “It will be good to sit down and listen to each other. It’s better than fighting.”
Indeed, shaped by Russia’s intervention and fading foreign support for the anti-regime insurgents, the Syrian war now appears to have settled into a logic where all roads lead to Damascus.
Yet much could still change. If the SDF moves too quickly or too close to al-Assad and his Iranian allies, it can kiss its hopes of Saudi and Emirati reconstruction funding goodbye.
Following Russia down the road to Damascus might also trigger pushback from the American government, whose main goal in Syria, which is to smash jihadis and ignore the rest, is a poor match with its main goal in the Middle East more generally, which is to hurt Iran. And finally, how do you deal with a regime whose overriding instinct seems to be to not compromise about anything ever?
A slew of questions remain to be answered before we’ll know how all this will play out. Syria’s local politics have a tendency to get snagged in international rivalries. Raqqa’s reconstruction will clearly be no exception.
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